Interview with Professor Robert Skloot
By Katrina Dombrowsky
Bob Skloot, UW–Madison professor emeritus of Theatre and Drama and Jewish Studies, carries a torch—one that, in his words, proclaims: “Through the arts, we can not only learn things but also emotionally respond to things. This creates an atmosphere or environment where hope is possible.” Hope is an elusive quality, but one that finds its way into the first and only “real” play Skloot ever wrote—If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide (Parallel Press, 2006).
The one-act play is about Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide.” Lemkin fled to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi German forces invaded Poland; forty-nine members of his family were not so fortunate and were ultimately killed. After the Holocaust, with no official government appointment, he lobbied the newly-created United Nations to adopt a treaty against genocide. After years of ceaseless work bordering on obsession, Lemkin’s mission was finally completed in 1951 when the U.N. ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Lemkin wrote. Since its adoption, 142 countries have ratified the treaty. The sad fact is that genocide still exists today, even in places where the treaty was adopted.
The following is an excerpt of an interview I conducted recently with Bob Skloot about his work.
What got you interested in Raphael Lemkin?
In the 2000s, I looked around for new challenges in the research I had been doing for 30 years, the subject of which had been the Holocaust and the theatre. The field we used to know as Holocaust Studies was expanding to be called Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and it opened itself up to greater academic study of the field of genocide. I had known of Lemkin for some time but [in] about 2005 or so, I thought, well why don’t we do a play about him? So after doing extensive research on Lemkin as a historical figure, I wrote the play with the idea that it could be used as a performance text for conferences and in classrooms that were devoted to human rights or related disciplines.
Would you say that your mission of spreading knowledge about Lemkin and his achievements has been successful?
It has. One of the questions or statements we always get when we have talk-backs with an audience after the readings is “Why didn’t I know about this man before? What a terrific historical person this was!” and I said well that’s a large part of the reason I wrote the play— to expose his name and work to people who hadn’t known this man, who I consider to be one of the few crucial universal citizens. He was a true citizen of the world. Lemkin was of Polish/Jewish origin and lived for the last years of his life in the U.S. as a law professor. But [he] died, as the play tells you, in 1959, virtually unknown. Seven people attended his funeral.
This was a man who was on a first-name basis with the heads of state of numbers of countries around the world as he recruited people to have his treaty approved in the United Nations. It was a difficult and contentious time, but he was finally successful. And that treaty is still the bedrock document to which all legislation and discussion has to refer. There have been some people who have said we need to change the whole treaty. And their argument, and it’s a good one, is that “well, it hasn’t worked, has it?” because we still have genocide all around the world, even as you and I are talking it is happening. On the other hand, to try and get 140 nations of the United Nations (maybe even more) to reconsider this would be hopeless. It would just be impossible.
The recurring theme of hope is evident throughout the play. How do you approach the challenge to maintain hope with this play?
We all know that the world is a violent place. It’s far more violent in some places than others and genocidal violence scars entire nations and regions of the world, seemingly endlessly. I saw a play in New York last month about the Armenian genocide that took place from 1915 to 1923. I thought it was a bad play in part because of the message. It seemed as though what the play was saying was that the Armenian people—some of them, not all, but some of them—are still so hopelessly (and I use that in the literal word now), tied into the disaster of their countrymen and their own national ethnic group of a century ago that they find it difficult to see the world or themselves as able to be anything but violent.
[Hope is] especially important, it seems to me, for people who are young. If there is no hope in the world, it can only be a worse place than it is now. Though sometimes it’s hard to kind of grab on and say “we can do something,” I think the alternative is to pull the covers over our heads and just forget that something better is out there calling us.
I’d say that my play is not un-hopeful. It’s sad, and it’s funny in places. But it shows us a man possessed of an ethical imagination, for which there can be no substitute if we are to move ahead with the creation of a more peaceful world.
Will Lemkin’s mission ever be complete?
No. I don’t think so. The treaty itself, as we know, was something of a political compromise. There are some terrific things in the treaty and some things that were left out of it in order for it to be ratified in the United Nations. For instance, Lemkin’s intent to try and have political perpetrators identified was dropped from the treaty. But what’s more important is that the law works only when people agree to follow the law. And that’s an agreement that we don’t have. One of the reasons we’re in this perilous and difficult state is that when these episodes of horrifying violence occur—and they have often, too many times since Lemkin’s treaty—nations try behave with impunity and bystander nations refuse to intervene. Lemkin’s treaty did say specifically, this is very important, that these kinds of episodes of violence are crimes if they occur not in war only, but in peacetime too. [We have reached] a place where, unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, the domestic politics of nation states has made the prevention and punishment of genocide very, very difficult.
Skloot’s mission is really an extension of Raphael Lemkin’s. By making Lemkin’s name known and publicizing his achievements, Skloot hopes to keep the torch of conscience lit.
During the week of November 29 – December 5, the University of Kansas will hold “Genocide and the Arts,” a series of events related to If the Whole Body Dies. Skloot will travel there to play the part of Raphael Lemkin and participate in audience talk-backs and classroom visits.
If the Whole Body Dies has been appropriately dubbed by Skloot’s wife Joann as “the little play that keeps on giving” and so far, it has certainly lived up to this title. It has been read or performed three to four times a year every year since its publication. It has been done at numerous colleges and locations across the United States, including UW–Madison, but its reach is by no means limited to the U.S. It has also been performed in Sarajevo, Bosnia; Wroxton College in England; The Hague, The Netherlands; Cork, Ireland; Camaguey, Cuba; Lima, Peru; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The play now has Spanish, Polish, and German translations and a Hebrew translation is currently in the works. Skloot explained that, “Of course, playwrights don’t write their plays to be read. They write their plays to be performed. So I’m hopeful that sometime these new translations will be performed somewhere in the world.”
Although he concedes that the play “will not end genocide, no play will,” Skloot urges that without it and without “plays like it or novels like it or musical compositions or dance compositions, films—not having them would present us with a horrible gap in how we’re to understand things; Not just factually, but also in a sense, by providing another way of knowing certain kinds of historical and universal truths.”
In considering what the play’s future holds, Skloot continues his ever-present theme of hope: “I’m hopeful the play will still keep going. It has provided me with a great sense of artistic satisfaction, though it’s a great irony that its success may be the result of the kind of behavior the play is hoping to defeat.”